The first historic reference to the Elwha was in July of 1790 when the Spanish Captain Manuel Quimper purchased berries and salmon “of a hundred pounds” from the natives off the mouth of the river. The Nootka Convention gave Spain and England the right to trade in the area. Both countries raced the Russians and the Americans to claim land, establish settlements and find the Northwest Passage, a fabled water route that was believed to cross North America.
In May of 1792 the American Captain Robert Gray discovered and named the Columbia River after his ship. This gave the United States a claim to the same vast lands that the Europeans had already colonized. Gray traded some nails to the Columbia River people for 450 sea otter and beaver skins that were worth a fortune in China. This ignited a global trade, where metal, gunpowder and alcohol were traded for furs on the Northwest Coast that were traded in China for tea, silk and spices for markets in Europe and Boston. In 1800 Spain ceded its claim to France. They sold out to the Americans who, in 1818 bluffed England into a joint occupation of Oregon, or what we now call the Pacific Northwest. It was a land the American squatters were soon to take over.
The Hudson Bay Company was forced to move its’ headquarters north from Nisqually to the new city of Victoria in 1843. In 1849 HBC trappers John Everett and John Sutherland paddled across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria to Crescent Bay. They were adopted by the S’Klallam. Sutherland and Everett trapped in the Northern Olympics, discovering and naming Lakes Sutherland and Everett which was renamed Lake Crescent.
Of course the Olympic Peninsula had already been discovered shortly after the glaciers melted 15,000 years ago. A few miles east of the Elwha at the Manis Mastodon Site, a 14,000 year old mastodon rib was excavated with a healed over spear point stuck in it. This is the oldest evidence of human activity in the Pacific Northwest.
At the time of their first European contact in 1778, an estimated 2,400 S’Klallam, or “the strong people” lived in villages along the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Hoko River to Puget Sound, north to Vancouver Island and south into the Olympic Mountains on the Elwha, where villages and camps were located at the mouths of creeks for 20 miles up the river. S’Klallam trails ran up the Elwha to the Quileute, Quinault and Skokomish Rivers. These trails were used for visiting other tribes, trade and war.
Recently, part of a 3,000 year old basket was discovered near Hurricane Ridge. The S’Klallam used the high alpine country for hunting, gathering and berry picking. The basket and much of the S’Klallam material culture was made from the Western Red Cedar. Baskets and clothing were woven from the inner bark of the cedar. Houses were made from split cedar boards. Ocean going canoes were carved from cedar logs. Cedar limbs were woven into weirs in the river. The weirs forced the salmon to swim into traps where they could be speared.
Paul Kane, an Irish artist commissioned by the Hudson Bay Company to paint the Indians of North America drew a picture of a S’Klallam fish trap in 1847. By then the population of the S’Klallam was 1,760. The boundary dispute between the U.S. and Great Britain was settled. The Olympic Peninsula became American soil. In the Point no Point Treaty of 1855 the S’Klallam gave up 750,000 acres of their land to the United States. The S’Klallam population was reduced to 926. Native Americans had little resistance to the European diseases that eliminated entire villages throughout the Oregon Territory. In 1859 the ship “What Cheer” unleashed yet another smallpox epidemic on the Olympic Peninsula.
In 1860 with the passage of the Homestead Act, Americans could gain title to 160 acres of land by building a cabin and planting a garden. The S’Klallam could not homestead land because they were not U.S. citizens. In 1870 local homesteaders demanded that the S’Klallam be removed to a common reservation with their traditional enemies, the Skokomish down on Hood Canal.
In 1875 some of the S’Klallam purchased land at Jamestown near Sequim, where the last S’Klallam potlatch was held in 1878. Their population was 597.
In 1889 Washington became a State. In 1910 Washington started to require a fishing license. The S’Klallam, not being citizens could not fish legally. That was the same year the industrial age came to the Olympic Peninsula. Thomas T. Aldwell used the Homestead laws to acquire land and build a dam on the Elwha five miles above the mouth of the river. There was no provision for fish passage. In 1912 the first Elwha dam was completed. It blew out 13 days after the reservoir filled. The repair crew set off 16 tons of dynamite to blast 40,000 yards of rock to reinforce the 105 foot high dam. It was back in operation in 1914.
Thousands of salmon died at the foot of the Lake Aldwell dam without spawning. It was illegal to build a dam in Washington without fish passage but Aldwell promised to build a fish hatchery instead. It failed after a few years.
In 1925 another dam 210 feet high was built upstream at Glines Canyon. Together these dams produced over 28 megawatts of electricity that was used as far away as the Bremerton Naval Shipyard.
At the time of the dams construction an estimated 300,000 salmon swam up the Elwha. By the 1990’s there were only 3000 salmon left.
The Elwha Dam removal project is an experiment to restore salmon runs by opening over 70 miles of pristine spawning habitat within Olympic National Park. The question remains, will removing the dams bring back the salmon, including the Elwha’s legendary hundred pound Chinook? It has been speculated that these Chinook grew so large because they lived for twelve years. A normal Chinook might only live four or five years. The large size of the Elwha Chinook may also been a result of having to swim through the violent rapids and spawn in the rugged canyons of the upper Elwha.
Current plans to remove the dams represent the largest project of its kind in the United States. At the Lake Aldwell dam they plan to draw down the reservoir and dig a channel to drain the lake down to the sediment level then remove the lower part of the dam with controlled blasting.
The larger Glines Canyon Dam will be removed by cutting it into sections that will be recycled. Once the dam is cut down to the level of the sediment, they’ll blast the rest of it away. There is an estimated 18 millions cubic yards of sediment behind the two dams. It is unknown at this time what effect the sediment release will have on the lower river.
While it is hoped that removing the dams will restore the salmon runs, on the Elwha, other Olympic Peninsula rivers have lost their salmon without being dammed. Even rivers protected within Olympic National Park are not currently meeting salmon escapement goals.
At present there are no hundred pound salmon in the Elwha. No Chinook of that size have been observed for many years. Whether the genetics of these legendary fish survive or if a hundred pound salmon could survive in a modern environment that has been compromised by overfishing, pollution and climate change is unknown. All that is known for sure is if the salmon cannot be returned to the Elwha they cannot return anywhere.
The return of the Elwha salmon would restore an ecosystem and the S’Klallam cultural and spiritual connection to the river. The return of just one hundred pound salmon would make the current $350 million dollar price tag of the Elwha Dam Removal Project a bargain.